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Archive for June, 2011

We’re moving into summer season at Davies Memorial, which means nine lay-led services in 12 weeks. The new element this summer: I’m leading one of them.

I have a sermon in the works — written, actually, although I have some ideas for revising it — that I’m going to call “Once Upon A Life.” (At least I think I’m going to, unless a better title occurs to me soon.) It’s about the way our lives form narratives and how we can consciously choose to live better stories when we make deliberate decisions to act in certain ways. And it’s about the way each of our stories affects the other stories being lived around us. I’m drawing from a modern Christian author, some pagan traditions (including Druidry), fiction-writing techniques and Doctor Who.

It’s set for August 7, and while I’m a little nervous about it, I’m excited too.

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How do you use God? Do you use Jesus? How about Allah, ever use him?

The idea of “using” Jesus or Buddha sounds strange, doesn’t it? And yet, I’ve heard many pagans talking about the deities they “use” for various purposes. I’ve done it myself, in deciding which gods I wanted to “use” in JMG’s Sphere of Protection ritual.

But Teo Bishop brought me up short on it with this entry at Bishop in the Grove.

After describing attending a ritual at which a leader briefly suggested the best gods to “use,” Teo writes:

Huh. What an interesting use of the word “use”, I thought. Using Gods to cure what ails you. Using Gods to get what you want out of life. Huh. How consumerist. Pill popping deities; making use of them in order to – what – be pain-free, blissful, satisfied?

It got me wondering – Is that what the Gods are? New Age Prescription Drugs?

Me, I’m still wrestling with my concept of deity, and I’ll say more about it as I continue the “My Pagan Soul” series I’ve been slowly working on. I’m not sure if I’m a “gods are real” polytheist or not, as Teo describes himself. I’d like to be, but coming from a long time of alternating between monotheism, agnosticism and panentheism, it’s an alien concept that I’m still working to get comfortable with.

But I do think that whatever the gods are — real individual beings, manifestations of a single larger divinity or psychological archetypes — the very concept means they deserve to not be seen as commodities that we can “use.” They deserve respect and some degree of reverence. (I recently read a discussion where one poster mentioned he’d named his dog Cernunnos, after the horned god of the Celts, and another said it was a “great name for a dog!” Is it? Know any devout Hindus with a dog named Krishna?)

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Previously:
I Come of Age
I Go to College
Death and the Televangelist

The Return

I already knew the new minister, Brad, although only slightly. He had led my father’s memorial service, and I’d met him briefly then. But now I was going with the purpose of revisiting questions I’d put away and trying one more time to get some answers.

I was emotionally open. My father’s death and then my more recent bout of serious illness had put a sharp fear of mortality into my head. I felt I was missing an anchor, adrift. And with my horizons still relatively narrow, returning to something familiar made sense to me.

Brad impressed me immediately. Tall, young and vibrant, he was a sharp contrast to the ministers I’d grown up under at the same church. The man in the position when we started going was impersonal and aloof (or at least that was the impression I got as a child) and later shamed himself with indiscretions. After him came a succession of bland and colorless shepherds, none of whom formed any personal connection to me. Whether they were any more effective with the adults in the church (remember, I dropped out in my teen years), I can’t say.

Brad and I sat down and I unspooled the story of my past few years, how I had left the church behind, the events that had compelled me to initiate the conversation we were having. He took my questions seriously – a first I think – and offered some thoughts, and some books. I remember one was “Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis. I don’t recall the others specifically, but they were all apologetics.

This was more than 20 years ago so I no longer remember exactly how long it took, but it wasn’t more than a few weeks. I decided to return to church. I was living an hour away from my hometown, so that church wasn’t really an option even with Brad in the pulpit. But my city and his were in the same district, which meant he knew a lot of the pastors at churches close to me. He recommended one; I went, liked it and kept going back.

There was trouble nearly from the beginning, though. I found that I kept devouring books about the faith, and many more of those books were defenses of it, rather than devotional or practical. I saw myself at the time as a bold new believer, and the books were to build up my weapons against doubters and skeptics. I sought out debate and defended Christianity boldly. But in truth, I came to understand, I needed a steady stream of reinforcement for myself.

My return to the church was born in emotional need, and then it continued to meet emotional needs. I made a new circle of friends there, more than I’d had before and for the most part, fun and interesting people. I got involved in the choir and discovered some minimal ability to sing, with care and good direction. But intellectually, I was forever needing to be re-convinced.

I still wrestled with the old question of exclusion, but I’d grown sophisticated enough in thinking to add some new difficulties to it. How to square a theology that ultimately depends on a first man and woman falling into sin with evolution, for example? Or a vast universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies with the central importance of man?

So I put aside conventional apologetics and sought out works that addressed those questions. In particular, I remember “Genesis and the Big Bang,” by Gerald Schroeder, “Darwin’s Black Box,” by Michael Behe, and “The Faith of a Physicist,” by John Polkinghorne.

They helped in some ways, but it was hard to ignore that the closer one got to scientific truth, the more one had to modify and adjust Christian theology – beat it with a hammer into a different shape entirely in some cases – to make it fit. Still, it wasn’t really inhibiting me, at that point, from being an enthusiastic Christian. I went to church every week, felt spiritually fed, socialized with my church friends more than any others, and sought out venues to discuss it. I had not quite made it to online interaction at this point — that was still in my future, although very close — but I found local people willing to debate and discuss.

Around the time these thoughts were coming to the fore – three or four years after I’d been active in the church – I got married. My wife (now ex) was also a faithful churchgoer, which gave me further incentive to put my doubts aside and just go with it. I managed to do that for another three years, but eventually I pulled away again. My marriage ended, partly over our no-longer-harmonious religious outlooks, and then everything changed.

NEXT: Finding My Way

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The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered
is a rare kind of book — the kind that can make you feel a brilliant light shining into dark corners as you read it. John Michael Greer brings a keen insight to economics and explains in accessible language just why it is that we’re in the economic condition we are today.

Departing from standard economics theory, Greer divides the overall economy into three: The Primary Economy is the wealth of nature — oil, arable land, water and so on; the Secondary Economy is the world of goods and services, the products we make and buy; and the Tertiary Economy is the economy of finance — debt instruments, stocks, bonds and other “wealth” that exists on paper and in computer records.

He builds his thesis on two previous books, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
and The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World
. But where those were about the declining availability of fossil fuels and the world that he predicts will emerge as cheap, abundant energy evolves into scarcity, this one starts there and moves in new directions.

Greer makes a convincing case that much of our current trouble stems from confusing money with wealth. Money, he writes, is the yardstick we use to measure wealth, not the wealth itself. But much of our economic activity is focused on money, leading to an ever-increasing debt burden and political policies that just dig the hole deeper by increasing the supply of money even though the actual value we’re producing doesn’t support it.

The other signifant problem we face is the failure to factor in the Primary Economy. Conventional economic theories disregard the contributions of nature to our economic well-being, assuming that whatever resources we need, we’ll have. If that isn’t a safe assumption — and Greer argues convincingly that it is not — then any conclusions based on that assumption are also in peril.

All in all, the book paints a picture that could be grim but is also empowering. There are ways to survive and even thrive in the future that Greer believes is coming, if you’re armed with information and willing to adjust your expectations. This book is an excellent starting point for the journey.

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John Michael GreerI’ve arranged for John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, to come speak at my church, Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist. The program will take place Oct. 8, and is titled “Nature Spirituality and the Future of Human Society.” He’s going to blend Druidry with his work on peak oil and conservation.

I’m winding my way through his latest book, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered. It’s an excellent read and offers some really insightful analysis of why economists miss the point so much of the time. Like all of his books, it’s written well, easy to read and understand despite the complexity of the subject.

He recently mentioned in a comment on his blog The Archdruid Report that he’s working on a book about various prophecies of doomsday, to be titled Apocalypse Not. It will be out in September.

The program is free, so if you’re anywhere nearby the Washington D.C. area (the church is south of D.C. in Camp Springs, Md.) come on out. And pass the information on to anyone you know who might be interested. It promises to be a great evening.

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Previous:
Part One: I Come of Age
Part Two: I Go to College

Part Three: Death and the Televangelist

During and after college I became apathetic to religion. Even the fascination I’d had for exploring beliefs regardless of whether I embraced them faded to the background. I had grappled with a conundrum with Christianity that I couldn’t resolve, and I’d looked down the other roads that I was aware of and hadn’t seen much that drew me. I could have become Jewish except there was still that “Chosen People” problem and the question of what about everybody else? I could have become Baha’i, except it was just too foreign for me to tackle at that time in my life, and had no community to speak of around it where I was.

So I put my energy into developing my burgeoning journalism career and building my first social structure as a young adult. The year I graduated college I moved twice, first to a small town about 500 miles from home, and then to a small city very close to my hometown – about an hour away.

I didn’t attend any religious services, and tried to deflect the subject when my worried parents would bring it up. Instead, I lost some weight and started dating actively in my new home city, working in a profession that came with a built in requirement of socializing. I had a few girlfriends in those early years, none serious; I developed some good (at the time) male friends for other social activities, and put my attention on developing my professional skills and building a reputation at the newspaper where I worked.

Then came the first really hard punch that life had dealt me: My father suffered a major heart attack, barely survived it, and then declined with worsening congestive heart failure until he died at the age of 52. I was 25. I had lost three grandparents to death at that point, but my grandfathers had died when I was so young I barely understood what was happening, and my paternal grandmother had been such a mean and nasty woman that her death – in her late 70s – didn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. (That may sound horrible but it’s really how I felt.)

My father and I were not as close as I wish we had been. We simply didn’t really understand each other. He came of age in rural Alabama in the post-WWII years, learned computer programming in the National Guard at a time when the field was still nascent, and made a good career working for the government, but he was always a country boy at heart, Alabama twang and all. But I was only 10 when we moved to Florida, and I grew up in a mid-sized city with more ethnic and cultural diversity than his upbringing had offered (it doesn’t seem like all that much diversity now that I’ve lived near D.C. For so long, but by comparison, it was.). I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, developed an affinity for science and a fondness for books, science fiction and rock music.

So by the time I was 25, striving for an independent identity, sharing (I thought) little in common with him, we simply barely knew each other as adults. When he died, of course, any chance of ever being closer died with him, and that is something I still regret.

My grieving process took some time to unspool. I did it in moments, a little at a time, over a period of months. It was 11 months later, January 1990, that the flu knocked me off my feet for four days.

It was the sickest I had ever been for any reason. I remember it well, laid out on the couch in my apartment, barely enough strength to work the TV remote. And during that time, the only thing I could put on TV that brought me any comfort was … the religion channel.

I don’t remember which televangelist it was, but it was one of the well-known ones of the time. The words brought my childhood back to me, evoking memories of the churches we’d gone to when I was very young, and one my father had served as pastor under a program the United Methodist Church had to allow lay members to serve as pastors for small rural churches, under some kind of supervision.

The specific content of the message was nothing remarkable, the reliable message of sin and salvation. But the music and the cadence and my weakened state and my residual grief and sense of guilt for not having tried to be closer to my dad all came together and led me to a renewed desire to find faith of some kind.

When I recovered from the illness I talked to my mother about this and learned that our church in Pensacola – which I had never liked because it was about the most unspiritual place ever – had a new minister, a young man with a different kind of zeal than any of the ineffectual pastors who had been there when I was going. I took a deep breath and agreed to meet with him.

Next: The Return

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